COVID-19 can disrupt your senses, including your ability to taste and smell. But even after people recover, these senses don’t always come back immediately or sometimes return in an unexpected way.

Without taste and smell, it’s hard to feel like you’re actually better. And if everything smells bad, that makes things even worse.

Many happy memories are tied to our sense of smell. Social activities are often surrounded by food, cooking and baking. Smell enriches our sense of taste, adds more subtlety to flavors and, of course, stimulates salivation. It’s common to feel sad and discouraged when you can’t take part in these activities – or even just fully enjoy a good meal – like you used to.

Fortunately, changes to taste and smell aren’t forever for most people. Plus, there are treatments that may help speed recovery. Read on to learn more about why some people have these symptoms and what you can do to help get back your senses.

How COVID-19 affects your ability to smell and taste

How COVID-19 changes your smell and taste remains unknown. The good news is COVID-19 doesn’t seem to affect the olfactory sensory nerves responsible for smell or your taste buds.

Instead, the coronavirus seems to affect the supporting cells that surround the olfactory nerve. When these support cells aren’t working correctly, it can block the olfactory nerve’s signals from getting to your brain, causing loss or change to your sense of smell.

Because about 80% of what we taste comes from what we smell, loss of smell often leads to loss of taste. Without our sense of smell, we can only taste broad flavors – sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory.

Your sense of smell can be affected in different ways from COVID-19. There are three conditions that you may experience:

Anosmia – complete loss of smell

Anosmia is complete loss of smell and is often one of the earliest signs of a COVID-19 infection. Studies estimate that up to 60% of people experience anosmia when infected with COVID-19. Anosmia can also be caused by growths in your nose and other illnesses such as a cold or flu.

Hyposmia – reduced sense of smell

If you have hyposmia, you may be able to smell some things but not others, so it’s possible you can have this condition without realizing it. Studies show that many people with COVID-19 have hyposmia, even though they think their sense of smell is fine. This condition is also caused by aging, medical conditions and illness.

If you had complete loss of smell from COVID-19, you may experience hyposmia during the recovery process since the ability to smell often comes back gradually. As it does, there may be times that you’ll only be able to smell or taste things with strong odors.

Parosmia – distorted sense of smell

It’s also possible that things may smell differently as you recover from COVID-19 – and not in a good way. If you find yourself wondering why everything smells disgusting, you may have parosmia after COVID-19.

If you have parosmia, things that normally have a pleasant smell (or no smell) suddenly smell bad or rotten. The “COVID smell” from parosmia is generally a burnt chemical odor but it might be different for you. Some people with parosmia after COVID-19 describe the smell as rotten food, garbage or ammonia. The “COVID smell” seems to be especially bad if you’re around coffee, onions, garlic, meat, citrus, toothpaste and toiletries.

About 7% of people who have loss of taste and smell during COVID-19 end up with parosmia, according to one study. Parosmia can also be a symptom of respiratory infection, seizures or brain tumors.

When does the sense of smell come back after COVID-19?

Loss of smell can be one of the most persistent symptoms of long COVID-19. Most people get better in a few weeks, but for some people, it can take longer – sometimes over a year.

In one study, about 25% of people who lost their sense of smell hadn’t regained it within 60 days of getting sick. But after a few months, the number of people who did regain their sense of smell increased dramatically. In another study, 86% of patients had regained their sense of smell by four months; by 12 months, that number jumped to 96%.

When does parosmia after COVID-19 start?

A distorted sense of smell typically appears two to three months after COVID-19, often when you thought you were mostly recovered. It may seem like your sense of smell is coming back, little by little, and then suddenly everything smells terrible. Or, you may go from smelling nothing at all to smelling only horrible odors. Most people get over parosmia in about three months, but it can last for six months or more.

Can COVID-19 cause permanent loss of smell and taste?

It’s unlikely, since COVID-19 doesn’t appear to damage olfactory nerves or taste buds directly – it only affects the cells that support your olfactory nerves.

Your body is great at rebuilding nerve support cells. Over time, the ones supporting your olfactory nerves should completely heal themselves.

However, it’s possible you may need to retrain your brain to interpret signals it hasn’t experienced for a while.

When does taste come back after COVID-19?

The good news is that once your sense of smell is back to normal, you’ll be able to taste things the same way you did before.

How can I get my sense of smell and taste back after COVID-19?

Your ability to smell and taste will most likely come back on their own after a while. But if you’d like to speed things along, there are some things you can try.

Clearing up sinus inflammation

If changes to your sense of smell stick around longer than your other COVID-19 symptoms, it might be caused by inflammation in your nose. These at-home treatments can help:

Saline rinses with a neti pot

For this treatment, you’ll combine a small amount of special salt with warm distilled water in a pot that looks a bit like a genie’s lamp. When everything is mixed, you pour the solution through your nasal cavities.

Rinsing out your nasal cavities in this way clears out the mucus or debris in your nose that may be causing inflammation. You can find neti pots online or in your local store near treatments for seasonal allergies.

Often neti pots come with packets of the salt mixture you’ll need. But if not, look for salt designed for nasal cleansing or neti pots. You’ll also want to pick up distilled water from the store. Tap water and filtered water aren’t safe to use with your neti pot, because they contain microbes that may affect your nasal passages and, potentially, your brain.

Nasal sprays to reduce inflammation

An over-the-counter nasal steroid spray like Flonase or Nasacort may be another option to clear up sinus inflammation. These sprays start working quickly and are generally safe, especially if you’re only taking them for a short amount of time. There are some people who shouldn’t use nasal sprays. So, before picking one up, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor if it’s a good treatment for you.

Retraining your sense of smell

It’s also possible that your brain may have “forgotten” how to smell. As a result, you might not smell anything, or you may have a distorted sense of smell. A forgetful brain may sound serious, but remember, your brain is constantly learning and relearning.

So, how can you train your senses to smell again after COVID-19? Smell therapy can help – the process involves smelling different strong scents for at least 20 seconds while thinking about memories and experiences involving the scent. We generally recommend rose, lemon, clove and eucalyptus essential oils because the smells are strong and distinctive.

Just keep in mind that it can take three months or longer to notice improvements with smell therapy. It’s important to stick with it.

How can a medical professional help me recover taste and smell after COVID-19?

It may take a long time to start noticing improvements in your taste and smell. But having the support of a doctor or clinician can make the process easier.

Start by making an appointment with your primary care doctor. They’ll talk with you about your medical history, how long you’ve been experiencing taste and smell issues, and your treatment goals. They’ll also conduct an exam or order any tests that can help understand your condition and make the best treatment plan.

Then based on your symptoms and goals, your primary care doctor can help identify other specialists who may be able to help, including:

  • Occupational therapist – When you work with an occupational therapist, you’ll get exercises, education and personalized instruction to help you regain or fix your sense of smell. In some cases, they may also use different forms of manual therapy to improve how your olfactory nerves work.
  • Ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor – If you’re suffering from anosmia, you may also want to make an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor. They’ll be able to discuss other possible treatment options and ongoing clinical trials.

Alternative treatments may also be an option. For example, acupuncture may help get you smelling again. During an acupuncture procedure, your specialist will place thin, hair-like needles in different locations on your face and gently move them around.

Does insurance cover therapy for loss of taste and smell?

Occupational therapy for loss of taste and smell is often covered by insurance, but any costs you’re responsible for will depend on your coverage. That’s why it’s a good idea to contact your insurance company before making an appointment with a doctor.

Learn to taste and smell again after COVID-19

Getting back to living your best life after COVID-19 can be hard if you can’t taste and smell. Fortunately, recovery is almost always possible.

If you’d like personalized treatment to recover your taste and smell after COVID-19, we’re here to help. Our doctors and clinicians are ready to work with you to bring back your senses so you can start tasting food, smelling flowers and enjoying life to the fullest.